Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Shared Language

One of the themes running through the selections of Imagined Communities we read that I found most interesting was that of national language (or lack thereof). In “The Last Wave”, Anderson specifically argues that the origin of nationalism does not require a shared language, and that what language is used to represent that nationalism s not, in itself, important. Although sacred languages were once the basis for imagined communities of religious groups, nationalisms are shared among people with different “mother-tongues”. Anderson writes that “It is always a mistake to treat languages in the way that certain nationalist ideologues treat them – as emblems of nation-ness” (133). The idea that specific languages are not important in nationalist movements strikes me as strange, although perhaps only because I am thinking of precisely the “nationalist ideologues” Anderson is trying to refute. For example, I am wondering about the contemporary movement to have English named as the official language of the United States, and ongoing debates about bilingual education in public schools. It seems to me that in this case some people are trying to use language to set the boundaries of their imagined community in a way Anderson dismisses. And while it may be quite true that “anyone can learn any language” (134), such learning often takes time and energy such that language does, in many cases, seem to stand in for a certain kind of imagined community, one that at this moment seems to me at times to trump nationality, or at least coexist with it. So, I suppose my question is whether the idea that “nations can now be imagined without linguistic communality” (135) is somehow starting to be threatened, and if so, how is that related (if it is at all) to growing global communities which can more and more easily bypass language barriers thanks to new technologies.

I am also curious about the assertion in this section that “Nothing suggests that Ghanaian nationalism is any less real than Indonesian simply because its national language s English rather than Ashanti” (133). While I don’t doubt that Ghanian nationalism is just as real as any other, I do wonder if the representation of the national language as specifically that of the colonist makes a difference in the way people understand their relationship to nationalism. Anderson seems to me to be making the case that it makes no difference, but when he mentions that “[t]oday there are perhaps millions of young Indonesians, from dozens of ethnolinguistic backgrounds, who speak Indonesian as their mother-tongue” (134) I have to wonder if this does not suggest some sort of goal of linguistic unity that may be connected to the cementing of an imaged nation. Even Anderson’s example of Switzerland as a multilingual nation seems somewhat unfulfilling to me since by his own admission Switzerland would probably have tried to Germanize if it were not for potential political ramifications (138).

I may well just need a little more convincing to agree that specific language choice for nationalism is unimportant, but I find it interesting that with so much emphasis on the power of language, the shape that language takes is still so easily brushed off.

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